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Arts & Letters

Ockham’s Rose

Carol Nicholson looks at philosophical themes in The Name Of The Rose. (WARNING: CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS.)

Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose (1980) was an international bestseller that sold fifty million copies “which puts it in the league of Harry Potter, and ahead of Gone with the Wind, Roget’s Thesaurus, and To Kill a Mockingbird” (Ted Gioia, postmodernmystery.com). Combining elements of detective fiction, the historical novel, the philosophical quest and the father-son initiation tale, the novel has appeal for many different kinds of readers. In the blurb on the first Italian edition, Eco wrote that he wanted to reach three different audiences – “the largest market, the mass of relatively unsophisticated readers who concentrated on plot; a second public, readers who examined historical novels to find connections or analogies between the present and the past; and a third and even smaller elite audience, postmodern readers who enjoyed ironic references to other literary works and who assumed that a good work of fiction would produce a ‘whodunit’ of quotations.” Most academic critics interpret it as a ‘postmodern’ novel, but Eco didn’t entirely approve of the label. He had distanced himself from postmodernist theories of interpretation, arguing that in the last few decades, ‘the rights of the interpreters’ have been overstressed at the expense of ‘the rights of the text’. He wrote, “I have the impression that [the term ‘postmodern’] is applied today to anything the user of the term happens to like.” Indeed, so much scholarly attention has focused on the postmodern aspects of The Name of the Rose that other themes have been neglected, although they are likely to be of more interest to the general reader. So fear not, gentle reader, in this article I will not talk about postmodern theory. Instead I will explore the philosophy of William of Ockham as a key to understanding the philosophical dimensions of the novel.

Two Williams

Eco’s detective, William of Baskerville, is a Franciscan monk who at first appears to be a medieval version of Sherlock Holmes. His name even echoes The Hound of the Baskervilles. His disciple and scribe, a young Benedictine novice, is named Adso, which sounds a little like Watson. In appearance too Baskerville resembles Holmes – he is tall and thin with sharp, penetrating eyes and a somewhat beaky nose – except that Baskerville has fair hair and freckles. Like Holmes, who used cocaine to alleviate boredom between cases, Baskerville occasionally takes drugs, chewing on mysterious herbs that he learned about from Arab scholars. “A good Christian can sometimes learn also from the infidels,” he tells Adso, “but herbs that are good for an old Franciscan are not good for a young Benedictine.”

William of Ockham
William of Ockham © Stephen Lahey

At the beginning of the story, Baskerville astonishes a group of monks with a dazzling display of Holmesian methods when he figures out that they are searching for the Abbot’s runaway horse and also correctly identifies the location, size, and even the name of the missing horse, based on his observations of minute details and his knowledge of texts describing medieval equestrian ideals. However, when Baskerville investigates a series of murders in an Italian monastery, it becomes clear that he is not a Holmes clone. For one thing, he is less sure of himself and more skeptical about his own methods. Holmes rather arrogantly says, “I never guess. It is a shocking habit – destructive to the logical faculty” (The Sign of the Four). Baskerville, on the other hand, says that guessing is the essence of his method. In the case of the horse, he tells Adso, “When I saw the clues I guessed many complementary and contradictory hypotheses.” His method of detection is neither deduction nor induction, but what the American pragmatist philosopher C.S. Peirce called ‘abduction’ – a process of making conjectures and eliminating those which are impossible or unnecessary.

Another way in which Baskerville differs from Holmes is in his attitude toward women. In The Sign of Four, Holmes notoriously announces, “Women are never to be entirely trusted – not the best of them” – which Watson rightly dismisses as an atrocious statement. Baskerville, on the other hand, is portrayed as a proto-feminist with liberal ideas about women and sexuality that contrast sharply with the traditionalist views of Adso, who refers to “that sink of vice that is the female body”, and the elderly monk Ubertino, who believes that “it is through woman that the Devil penetrates men’s hearts!” Baskerville retorts, “I cannot convince myself that God chose to introduce such a foul being into creation without also endowing it with some virtues.”

Baskerville’s differences from Holmes are due to the influence of his (non-fictional) friend, William of Ockham (1288-1347), whose radical philosophy laid the groundwork for the modern era and was partly responsible for bringing about the end of the medieval worldview. (Eco initially considered Ockham for his detective, but gave up the idea because he didn’t find him a very attractive person.)

While he was still a student at Oxford, Ockham’s brilliant lectures transformed philosophy, but he never completed his degree because he was summoned by Pope John XXII to Avignon for questioning. In 1327, the year in which The Name of the Rose is set, Ockham faced fifty-six charges of heresy, and was excommunicated after escaping to the protection of Emperor Louis of Bavaria. This put an end to his academic career, and he spent the rest of his life as a political activist advocating freedom of speech, the separation of church and state, and arguing against the infallibility of the Pope. Ockham found the Pope’s pronouncements opposing poverty in monastic orders “heretical, erroneous, stupid, ridiculous, fantastic, insane and defamatory. They are patently perverse and equally contrary to orthodox faith, good morals, natural reason, certain experience, and brotherly love.” The Pope (who was the richest man in the world at the time) responded by threatening that “he was prepared to burn a town down to smoke Ockham out.” Ockham probably died of the same outbreak of the plague that kills William of Baskerville at the end of the novel. If he hadn’t, he might have met a more fiery fate.

Ockham’s Sharp Thinking

William of Ockham is best known for his famous ‘razor’, which is simply the principle of simplicity or parsimony in making judgements. As Baskerville expresses the principle, “Dear Adso, one should not multiply explanations and causes unless it is strictly necessary.” In The First Deadly Sin (1973), Lawrence Sanders gives the most succinct summary of the principle: “Cut out the crap.” In Ockham’s time there was a lot of scholastic crap to be cut. This small tool made a big difference in slicing away the elaborate ideas of essential forms, hierarchies and teleologies that was the intellectual foundation of the Medieval European world.

Ockham himself used his principle of simplicity of explanation to make a strong case for nominalism, the idea that the world consists entirely of individual things, with no so-called ‘universals’ existing outside the mind (such as, for example, an essential ‘blueness’ in which all blue things partook). Nominalism provided the foundation for Ockham’s belief in free will, which he thought could not be limited by pre-existing essences, inviolable laws of nature, or even an omnipotent God. In Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (1987) Eco sums up the implications of Ockham’s philosophy by saying, “If man no longer sees a given order in things, if his world is no longer encompassed by fixed and definite meanings, relations, species and genera, anything then is possible. He finds that he is free, and by definition a creator.”

Ockham was also skeptical of Aristotle’s definition of man as ‘the rational animal’, and he suggested that we might as well define human beings as ‘the risible animals’ – those animals who are capable of laughter. This idea is important in The Name of the Rose, because Jorge, the blind librarian, despises laughter for its power to undermine fear of authority, and because the only surviving copy of Aristotle’s lost work On Comedy plays a major role in the solution of the mystery.

It follows from Ockham’s nominalism that if there is no essence of man, then there is no essence of woman either. Rather, there are only individual men and women and the ideas in our minds about them (which are fallible and subject to change). Ockham did not write much about women, but we do know that he questioned the natural supremacy of men and argued for a greater role for women in the church. Baskerville understands the gender implications of Ockham’s nominalism, and he is the only character in The Name of the Rose who is able to see women as individuals rather than versions of the archetype of either the Blessed Virgin or the diabolical temptress.

A House of Desires

There is much talk about sex in the novel, but little actual sex, because the monks in the abbey have no contact with women, and their desires for each other are necessarily hidden. In the one explicit sex scene Adso loses his virginity in the kitchen one night to the only woman in the novel. She’s a beautiful young peasant, and the novice monk falls in love with her. When Adso confesses his sin, Baskerville responds with kindness, “You must not do it again, of course, but it is not so monstrous that you were tempted to do it… For a monk to have, at least once in his life, experience of carnal passion, so that he can one day be indulgent and understanding with the sinners he will counsel and console… is not something to vituperate too much once it has happened.” After learning that his lover had snuck into the monastery to trade sexual favors with the ugly old cellarer for a few scraps of food, Adso is horrified and exclaims, “A harlot!” Baskerville gently corrects him: “A poor peasant girl, Adso. Probably with smaller brothers to feed.” Adso is heartbroken when she is burned as a witch, though he does not even know her name. The nameless girl is significant in the story as a symbol of innocent suffering, and her fate teaches Adso a hard lesson about the injustice of the world, foreshadowing Baskerville’s own conclusions at the end.

Baskerville sees even his enemies as individuals, understanding how in each of them their sexual desire has been differently twisted into fanatical lust for money, power, or knowledge. He explains to Adso that there are many kinds of lust that are not only of the flesh and can be far more dangerous. The Pope lusts for riches; and Bernard Gui, the overly zealous Inquisitor, has “a distorted lust for justice that becomes identified with a lust for power.” Baskerville says that those who truly love knowledge understand that “The good of a book lies in its being read”; but lust simply for books, “like all lusts… is sterile and has nothing to do with love, not even carnal love.” The monastery’s library “was perhaps born to save the books it houses, but now it lives to bury them.” Baskerville concludes that Jorge’s lust for power, disguised as love of God, has turned the library, whose purpose should be to share knowledge rather than hoard it, into a ‘sink of iniquity’.

The novel can be read as a study of the seven deadly sins as different forms of lust, each illustrated by one of the characters. Even Baskerville realizes at the end that he has fallen into the sin of intellectual pride, and he laughs at his folly. He had imagined that the murders followed a pattern based on the Book of Revelation, but this conceit led him astray and prevented him from solving the mystery in time to save the library from burning down. He asks, “Where is all my wisdom, then? I behaved stubbornly, pursuing a semblance of order, when I should have known well that there is no order in the universe.” Adso is confused so Baskerville says, “It’s hard to accept the idea that there cannot be an order in the universe because it would offend the free will of God and his omnipotence. So the freedom of God is our condemnation, or at least the condemnation of our pride.” Thus the most devastating implications of Ockham’s method become clear to Baskerville when he sees from this that the razor is double-edged – it destroys certainty in God as well as certainty in the order that science tries to impose on the world. Baskerville adds, “Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from the insane passion for the truth.” Baskerville’s laughter at himself frees him from the most dangerous form of lust, then – his certainty of having found the truth.

Medieval Modernism

rose fire
Rose © Paul Gregory

The burning of the library is symbolic of the destruction of the Medieval worldview, for which some historians give Ockham the credit (or the blame). Afterwards, in giving Adso his spare pair of glasses, Baskerville symbolically passes on his knowledge and curiosity. By showing that the books are destroyed but the love of learning lives on, Eco confounds common prejudices concerning the Medieval period. He writes that “everyone has his own idea, usually corrupt, of the Middle Ages” (Rose, postscript, p.535), which was saddled with a bad name by the Renaissance that followed. Rather than the apparent dogmatism and immobility of the period, it was actually a time of “incredible intellectual vitality” and “cultural revolution.” It is astonishing to realize that the separation of church and state and the equality of women are not modern ideas, but originated in the Middle Ages. And many centuries before David Hume, Ockham criticized the idea of a necessary connection between cause and effect; and even more centuries before Karl Popper, Ockham understood the scientific method as a process of conjecture and refutation. Ironically, contemporary scholars have claimed to discover in The Name of the Rose ‘postmodern’ ideas about knowledge and truth that are at least eight hundred years old. Unlike the traditional detective novel, The Name of the Rose does not offer comfortable reassurance of the triumph of good over evil and order over chaos. It also makes readers uncomfortable by showing us a picture of fourteenth century Europe, in all of its brilliance and horror, as a mirror of our own age.

Eco writes, “The fundamental question of philosophy… is the same as the question of the detective novel: Who is guilty? And any true detection should prove that we are the guilty party” (Ibid). I don’t claim to understand this cryptic statement, but I’m guessing that it may be intended to accuse modern readers of not being honest about the darkness of our own era. In The Name of the Rose, Jorge deliberately destroys Aristotle’s book on comedy – at the cost of his own life – to stop others from reading it. In a 1996 interview with Theodore Beale, Eco said, “Even our times have been full of dictatorships that have burned books. What does it mean, the Salman Rushdie persecution, if not to try to destroy a book? Even today we have this continual struggle between people that believe certain texts are dangerous and must be eliminated. So my story is not so outdated, even though it takes place in the Middle Ages. We are not better” (umbertoeco.com).

I suspect that few readers will agree with Eco that our civilization has made no moral progress in the past millennium, but I think he is right that his story is not outdated. The seven deadly sins are still alive and well, as are the pompous intellectuals, greedy politicians, and lustful priests. We guard our libraries with laws and pay walls that prohibit public access to knowledge, and persecute those who leak information. We don’t burn people at the stake any more, but we have our own methods of torturing heretics. Eco’s novel pokes fun at our arrogant modern (or postmodern) sense of superiority, and challenges us to look with the skeptical and compassionate eye of William of Baskerville, the humble Holmes with a heart, at the cruelty and hypocrisy of the world we have made, and to laugh at ourselves.

© Carol Nicholson 2018

Carol Nicholson teaches philosophy at Rider University in Lawrenceville, NJ. Her article, ‘Rorty’s Romantic Polytheism’ will be published in the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Richard Rorty. nicholson@rider.edu

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